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‘Broken Windows’ Policing Results in Police Lying About Unlawful Stops

by Matt Clarke

“Broken windows” policing has not been linked to a reduction in serious crime, but it has been linked to an increase in police lying. “Broken windows” policing is based on the belief that aggressive police enforcement of minor criminal violations—such as trespassing, possession of marijuana, or using public transportation without paying—causes a decrease in serious crimes.

To show an increase in enforcement, the arrest rate has to go up, so police officers are told to arrest more citizens. Some are even given daily quotas of arrests to make. A 2016 report by the NYPD’s Office of Inspector General found “no empirical evidence demonstrating a clear and direct link between an increase in summons and misdemeanor arrest activity and a related drop in felony crime.” Nonetheless, “broken windows” policing remains NYPD policy.

A vigilant officer might simply pay more attention to what is going on and pursue even the most minor of offenders. However, this would not ensure that the officer made the necessary quota of arrests.

The lazy and more common approach used by police under the “broken windows” policy is simply to lie. If you stop someone, frisk that person, and find an illegal knife, you could simply say that part of it was visible out of the top of the person’s pocket. If you pull over a car and find a joint in the ashtray, you could lie and say the driver failed to signal a lane change. That way, the misdemeanor arrests are covered by legal reasons for the stop.

In an opinion piece in the New York Daily News, Managing Director of The Bronx Defenders Justine Olderman said little has changed since the Mollen Commission Report of the 1990s found that lying was one of the most persuasive forms of police officer misconduct in the NYPD. Olderman, whose office handles thousands of “broken windows” policing cases each year, said police lying to justify unlawful stops, searches, and arrests are the hallmark of that style of policing.

There is little incentive for police to stop lying. Less than 1% of the 205,386 misdemeanor cases in New York City’s courts in 2016 received a trial or a hearing of some kind in which a judge could test the credibility of police. The reason is simple: People cannot afford to hire a lawyer and wait months or years for a trial while the pending criminal charge jeopardizes their child custody, employment, housing, and immigration status.

In those rare cases that receive a trial, a judge is much more likely to believe a police officer about the circumstances of an arrest than a criminal defendant, absent irrefutable evidence such as a video recording. Even when there is such evidence, like when a judge dismissed the charges against a Black Lives Matter demonstrator after a video recording showed police subsequently lied about the encounter, the incident is rarely viewed as emblematic of widespread police behavior. Rather, the matter is generally written off as a “misunderstanding” or “isolated incident” with the officer or officers involved receiving little or no discipline.  

The unconstitutional “stop-and-frisk” program formerly carried out by the NYPD resulted in the targeting of minorities while turning up firearms in fewer than two out of a thousand stops. Similarly, the “broken windows” policy plays to the prejudice of police officers, who target communities of color and commit thousands of unlawful stops on the off chance that evidence of a crime might be discovered. In the rare cases such evidence is found, police often have to lie about the reason for the stop in the first place. Thus, it would appear that the very practice of “broken windows” policing has the very real potential for corruption and abuse by police. 



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